Category Archives: Leunig

Moral consistency, torture and the Left

I read a very interesting book on the weekend, called “What’s Left?” by Nick Cohen. And then on Monday night I saw a documentary on Four Corners about torture, including the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay. This post is going to be a pastiche of my impressions of experiencing both of these things in a short amount of time. I was commenting on various threads, but found I was repeating myself, and wanted to go into things in more detail than I could manage in a comment.
As I have outlined, I tend to follow my own path, and I do not follow left wing or right wing orthodoxy blindly. It sounds like Cohen’s book arose out of the same process. I laughed with recognition when I read the following:

I still remember the sense of dislocation I felt at 13 when my English teacher told me he voted Conservative. As his announcement coincided with the shock of puberty, I was unlikely to forget it. I must have understood at some level that real Conservatives lived in Britain – there was a Conservative government at the time, so logic dictated that there had to be Conservative voters. But it was incredible to learn that my teacher was one of them when he gave every appearance of being a thoughtful and kind man. To be good you had to be on the Left.

When I was young, I briefly dated a guy who was much more right-wing than I, in a libertarian sort of way. He kept questioning why I believed as I did. “I think unions are good,” I would say naively and trustingly, and he’d say, “Why?” and then come out with all these reasons why unions could be negative. Then I’d have to try and justify my beliefs to him. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it before. I’d just presumed that my beliefs were the beliefs that all good and fair people had. Although I found it very confronting at the time to have my beliefs questioned, I am glad that I went through that process. It made me see that I hadn’t thought things through properly.

Cohen’s book essentially argues that the focus of left wing liberals should be the fight against totalitarianism, torture, sexism, homophobia and racism, but he feels that this has been forgotten by some on the left in recent years.

He notes that up until 1990, there was widespread left-wing support in Britain for the Kurds and Iraqis who were trying to fight the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, once Iraq became the enemy of America, the Kurds and the Iraqis found that the support dried up, and many left-wing groups concentrated on protesting about the American intervention in Iraq instead. In so doing, he argues that they sidelined the torture, intimidation, murder and genocide of the Iraqi people at the hands of Hussein.

This leads me on to a discussion of the Four Corners documentary about torture. The ABC website has the following description of its content:

Deliberately inflicting pain and humiliation on human beings is no longer something only Third World dictators do. The First World is starting to get its hands dirty.

In the war on terror, might it be justified?

Torture remains illegal worldwide. However the US has narrowly defined torture to allow a suite of coercive interrogation techniques, while giving immunity to interrogators and shutting redress for detainees. And with apparent acquiescence of other western powers, it has spirited terror suspects to third countries where they have been repeatedly tortured and questioned.

Thus far, the documentary looked a little at torture in general, but focused on the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay by the US. On a few of the blogs I read, there has been a bit of a debate about whether this shows an anti-American bias.

Cohen explores this very phenomenon. He says:

God and the devil dwell together in the detail of great crimes. The more you know about monstrosities the more likely you are to make a commitment to fight them. For it is one thing to hear the screaming paranoia in the speeches of a dictator and realize that life in his country must be grim, quite another to know the names of the camps and of the torturers and the details of what they do to the camps’ captives.

He continues:

‘For every nugget of truth some wretch lies dead on the scrapheap,’ said H. L. Mencken. In his extravagant way, he had it right. Getting uncomfortable facts on to the record is the toughest struggle for journalists in democracies…

Consider how much tougher it is to get to the truth in a dictatorship where the penalty for saying a word out of turn is death. Asymmetries in access to information have the paradoxical effect of making it easier to expose the abuses of power in open societies than dictatorships. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, came up with ‘Moynihan’s Law’ to encapsulate the distorted vision that follows. It holds that the number of complaints about a nation’s violation of human rights is in inverse proportion to its actual violation of them. To put it another way, you can find out what is happening in America’s prison cells in Guantanamo Bay if you work very hard, but not in Kim Il-Sung’s prison cells in Pyongyang.

So the documentary concentrated on the US because, however flawed its practices may be, it is still a liberal democracy and there has to be some kind of scrutiny of its behaviour. Lawyers have to pass opinions on whether its practices are legal, the press has to be allowed at least some access to the detention facility, there have to be agreed detainee interview protocols and the like. Furthermore, people are free to comment adversely against the US processes without being killed. I have no time for Bush Jr, but on the positive side, he hasn’t sent his cousin to gas villages of people or ordered anyone’s tongue nailed to a post for speaking to the media. Okay, that’s not much of a positive, but it’s something.

However, what of al Qaeda or other jihadist movements, for example? Well, Four Corners would not be able to talk to Al Qaeda lawyers. There would be none. Nor could they talk to Al Qaeda interrogators or film captured Al Qaeda prisoners. Any journalists who tried to infiltrate it for information might be killed or kidnapped. Such organisations do not care whether torture is illegal. They do not care about UN conventions.

Hence the focus on the US. You can get information out of the government, and some good interviews and pictures. Furthermore, the US professes to respect human rights and to be “the” premier liberal democracy in the world, so its position on torture is, in my opinion, hypocritical. Everyone loves to point out hypocrisy. But Cohen’s book reminds us that by focusing on this issue, we on the liberal left may also become hypocritical.

Personally, I think that any torture should be condemned. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator is the US government, a totalitarian regime or a terrorist group. It is important to scrutinise the US, because it upholds ideals and should be made to keep to them. I don’t want to apologise for the US. And at least with public pressure such practices can be stamped out, and Bush can be voted out. So it is important to keep up the pressure.


We have to remember that there are authoritarian regimes where the perpetrators can’t be voted out and we can’t easily see what kind of torture is going on. What to do then? Do we ignore the question and focus on the wrongs of our own leaders, demonising them? Or do we face up to the issue and try to support people who want to find a way of deposing authoritarian rulers who torture their citizens? I prefer the latter option. It’s the hard option, not the easy option, but who said life was easy?

The next question, then, is: what is torture? Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states:

…”[T]orture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

I think that this definition provides a good starting point. Clearly hanging people from beams by the arms, beating them, putting pins into them etc to obtain confessions is torture. Clearly, also, although it is undoubtedly unpleasant, incarcerating someone for committing a crime is not torture. It is a lawful sanction which society agrees is appropriate for the protection of other members of society, for the punishment and rehabilitation of the perpetrator and in order that the victim or the victim’s family feels that there has been just retribution.

However, to my mind, there is no doubt that sensory deprivation, waterboarding, locking people in coffin-shaped boxes, making people stand hooded with arms outstretched for hours and the like is torture. Just because there are no marks on the person’s body doesn’t mean it isn’t torture. It sends a person mad, and creates great mental suffering. Personally, I’d almost prefer needles to my flesh than being put in a coffin-shaped box and left there. Hopefully I will never be confronted with that choice.

What about shouting loudly? Or putting underpants on a person’s head? Or telling a person they are a pig when the interrogator knows that the person hates pigs? I think this kind of conduct is totally inappropriate, but I would not go so far as to say it was torture. There is a fine dividing line – for example, if someone threatened to harm a family member of a detainee, that is torture. Or if someone has a terrible fear of spiders, and the interrogators cover him in spiders? That is also torture. (Ugh. I’m having a moment of attercoppaphobia.)

There is an unpleasant feeling of vengeance about the use of torture against Guantanamo detainees. Sure, most of them are probably horrible people who would have shed no tears if we were all blown up by terrorist bombs. But the important thing is to distinguish ourselves from these people by our humanity, not to stoop to their level. Many of them have been incarcerated for years, and could hardly produce any up-to-date information anyway.

Further, as one of the CIA operatives was explaining, torture is notoriously unreliable. On a pragmatic level, one may as well administer truth telling drugs. According to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia, they aren’t very reliable either, but they’re just as likely to produce results as torture. If there is a desperate emergency and peoples’ lives hang in the balance, I think that this would be a better course of action.

Portions of the works that are quoted and/or reproduced above are “fair dealing for the purpose of criticism or review” (Section 41 of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth)).

The Leunig cartoon is reproduced to illustrate the kind of left-winger I think Cohen is talking about. I’m not saying all left-wingers are like that. I’m not!


Filed under book review, George W Bush, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, Leunig, morality, politics, Saddam Hussein, terrorism, torture, USA, war

The appalling Leunig

Now, it might be that I’m in a bad mood because my poor baby has gastro and has been up half the night for the last two nights. It’s so distressing when one’s child is sick. But I read Michael Leunig’s opinion piece in The Age this morning, and I felt the steam coming out of my ears.

I used to love Leunig’s cartoons of 10 or 15 years ago, but I have liked very little of his recent work (over the last 10 years). His work has lost any subtlety and has a humourless and strident quality. He is obsessed with his hatred of John Howard, George Bush, Israel and the Iraq War, to the extent that he seems to defend the conduct of Saddam Hussein, Osama Bin Laden and Palestinian suicide bombers. As I have said previously, I don’t like this attitude. I don’t support everything Howard, Bush or the Israeli government have done, but on the other hand, this doesn’t mean that I support or excuse Hussein, bin Laden or suicide bombers.

Leunig’s piece is a defence of the Mufti’s recent sermon. Again, he seems to think that to disagree with John Howard, one must support Hilaly. Leunig compares himself with the male green turtle. If you ask me, this is an insult to the green turtle. I love green turtles. If one reads the extract in his piece about the sexualisation of society, it’s clear Leunig is a sick, sick man and that he has “issues“. He is quite extraordinarily misogynistic – hence the sympathy for Hilaly.

Leunig says:

“Sometimes a religious figure, such as a mufti, makes a sermon about human nature, rape and the general sexual madness – a bit like parents do to their children in private: “Look after yourself, take responsibility – there are some dark forces and crazy people out there who will destroy you if you’re not careful.” But the mufti uses ripe, rustic language, earthy metaphors and unpleasant ideas. He is set up and set upon by a national newspaper and told to shut up and resign. The Prime Minister chimes in. The mufti is denounced.But while we may not agree with everything he says, we sort of understand something of what he’s trying to get at. In the great tradition that Australians are meant to admire, he’s at least having a go in difficult terrain where all sorts of silver-tongue-tied experts are refusing to travel and are remaining silent about.”

Leunig’s argument seems to be: “Oh, come on guys, that’s the kind of unique view that these funny, crazy Mussies have, let it go through to the keeper. It’s just a cultural thing.” I find his stereotyping of different cultures patronising and offensive. Not all Muslims believe as Hilaly does. If I was a Muslim, I’d be pretty irritated at being junked with Hilaly. Leunig is committing the same sin as many others: seeing Islam as a monolithic entity with set cultural practices. As I will discuss below, this is a common error.

I suspect that Leunig has not actually read a translation of Hilaly’s sermon. The mufti wasn’t just saying, “Hey girls, don’t walk alone in dark places late at night. If you’re out partying, make sure you stay with friends, and don’t get so drunk that men can take advantage of you.” If Hilaly had said that, the furore surrounding is comments would be extremely unjust.

I don’t think Hilaly’s sermon is “just a cultural thing”. As I have argued in a previous post, Hilaly argued that it is excusable if men lose their self-control and rape women who are immodestly dressed. Immodest doesn’t just mean dressing like the Pussycat Dolls (ie, walking around in one’s lingerie as if one is fully dressed). As I have also discussed in another post, that kind of overtly sexualised image disturbs me too, along with the images of sexualised pre-pubscent girls and the like. But under Hilaly’s definition immodest means not wearing a veil. Shorts are immodest, t-shirts are immodest, knee-length skirts are immodest, swimming costumes are immodest. The majority of Australian women (Muslim and non-Muslim) are immodest. And thus, we’re asking for it. Of course Hilaly is entitled to express his opinion, but the corollary is that I am allowed to express my opinion in return that his sermon is offensive. And I would argue that he is not just expressing an opinion, he is saying to members of his congregation that it is excusable if they don’t behave according to Australian law. As the supposed representative of Islam in this country, his sermon was highly inappropriate.

Leunig says that the criticism of Hilaly is just another example of “gleichshaltung” (the word used to describe the homogenisation of culture in Nazi Germany). He says:

“Fascism is the stronger word but gleichshaltung seems more appropriate to describe the thing we have come to know as the globalised, homogenised, new Australian value system.”

I do think that politicians do use Islam and the war on terror as political capital (uniting the rest of Australia in fear against Muslims). I also think we have to careful about swallowing this wholesale. Unfortuantely, Hilaly is his religion’s own worst enemy in this respect. He was, until recently, the purported representative of Islam in Australia. It isn’t hard to convince the Australian people that Islam is a scary, alien religion when one reads his sermon about women and hears him say that he will only stand down when the White House is obliterated.

I really hate the overuse of the word “fascism”. The quote above from Leunig provides yet another example. In Australia, Hilaly is free to say whatever he wishes. He will not be jailed or put in a gulag or put to death for his sermon. The only thing he has to deal with is the community response to his opinion. This is part of being a public figure and a representative of one’s faith (look at the recent furore surrounding the Pope and Islam). John Howard can be described as a fascist when he sets himself up as a dictator, summarily executes Hilaly and starts rounding up Muslims and putting them in gas chambers. And if he does so, I will be one of the first to stand up and fight him.

I refuse to accept that, by criticisng Hilally, I am Islamophobic. I have some knowledge of the traditions of Islam and its different strands (Shi’a, Sunni and Sufi). I recognise that there is an incredibly broad spectrum of Muslim beliefs in Australia, and Hilaly’s views are not representative of the views of all Muslims. From my observations, the traditions one follows in Islam seem to depend first, on what area of the world one comes from and secondly, on what one’s family traditions are.

From my point of view, it is very important that Muslims in Australia be able to display outward signs of their inner faith without fear, where this means worshipping Allah, praying three or five times a day to Mecca, eating Halal food, wearing a hijab or a taqiyah, going on Hajj, keeping fast for Ramadan, having a festival for Eid and going to mosque on a Friday. I strongly support the right of every Muslim in Australia to follow these practices if they wish to do so. Further, I respect all of these beliefs and traditions. So for example, when I visited a mosque, I covered my head out of respect for the beliefs of the people who worshipped there. As far as I am concerned, that is simple good manners. I hope most Australians would also be supportive of diverse beliefs and traditions.

But I cannot support someone who says that men shouldn’t be expected to restrain themselves from raping or sexually assaulting women who don’t cover themselves up, and that this is a precept of his religion. I don’t care what religion it is. Since I was a small girl, I have felt safe wearing a swimming costume at the beach or wearing a pair of shorts when walking to the milkbar. I have not feared that by doing so, I am leaving myself open to be sexually assaulted or raped. I want my daughter to grow up feeling the same. Hilaly’s sermon shows that he does not respect me : he thinks I am a “slut” who “asks for it” because of what I wear. Nor does he respect my feminist beliefs and traditions. I think it is rude for Hilaly to come to my country and say that I deserve to be raped because I am wearing my traditional dress (for that is what it is).

I am not asking for “gleichshaltung” or homogenised culture. I am not asking Muslims (or anyone else) to give up their religious beliefs and practices such as festivals, specific dress, specific foods and specific prayers and forms of worship. But I am asking Hilaly and those who believe as he does to respect my culture and beliefs as I respect theirs. I don’t think that’s an unreasonable thing to ask.


I have discovered an interesting blog by Irfan Yusuf giving his perception as an Australian Muslim on these issues. I recommend it.

Further postscript:

I have been trying to find an online copy of a cartoon by Leunig which featured in the paper a little while back; it featured a character called “Mr Lust” who spent all day ogling women and then had no lust left for his wife. Here is an interesting discussion of this cartoon in the context of the Hilaly furore.

I couldn’t find a copy of the “Mr Lust” cartoon, but I did find a copy of the cartoon featured below. Geez that guy really does have issues.

Further postscript to my postscript:

Here is an interesting article by a liberal American Muslim woman.

(Via Tim Blair).


Filed under islam, Leunig, politics

More on Freedom of Speech

Should an opera containing a scene featuring the severed head of Muhammed (along with those of Jesus, Buddha and Poseidon) be cancelled? Apparently, Deutsche Oper in Berlin has removed the opera Idomeneo from its autumn schedule following security concerns.

I thought it was particularly interesting that the leader of the Islamic Council in Germany, Ali Kizilkaya, said that the scene could be offensive to Muslims, but he reportedly continued:

“Nevertheless, of course, I think it is horrible that one has to be afraid. That is not the right way to open dialogue.”

Thank you, Mr Kizilkaya. Well said. Personally, no matter how offensive an image may be, I don’t think threatening to kill or hurt people is the way to respond to these kind of issues.

  • Could artistic images which are regarded as blasphemous be banned by a Court?
  • A separate question: should we ban the publication of artistic images which are regarded as blasphemous on a policy basis?

It’s interesting to think about this issue in the context of previous incidents which have raised concerns of various religious communities in Australia. The answer to the first question seems to be that there is no law of blasphemy in Australia.

The law of blasphemy and ‘Piss Christ’

In 1997, the National Gallery of Victoria exhibited Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ, a photograph of a crucified Jesus suspended in urine. This image was offensive to many Christians. On 8 October 1997, Archbishop George Pell sought an injunction to restrain the exhibition on the basis of blasphemous libel. It seems that blasphemous libel would not cover any religion except Christianity. On 9 October 1997, in Pell v The Council of Trustees of National Gallery of Victoria [1998] 2 VR 391, Harper J refused the injunction. In light of this decision, it seems doubtful that blasphemous libel exists in Victoria. At page 396, Harper J stated:

The question whether this photograph is indecent or obscene is, given its religious context, and given that the court must have regard to contemporary standards in a multicultural, partly secular and largely tolerant, if not permissive, society, is not easy. The fact that the indecent or obscene quality of the photograph comes not from the image as such, but from its title and the viewer’s knowledge of its background, does not make the task easier.

Keep this statement in mind while reading the next section of the blog about anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoons.

In the event, the exhibition opened on 11 October 1997, during which a 56 year old man attempted to attack the photograph, but was prevented from doing so. The next day, on 12 October 1997, two young men successfully attacked the photograph with a hammer and the exhibition had to be closed. Here is a link to an article describing the legal issues in greater detail.

Policy considerations – Anti-Semitic and Islamophobic cartoon controversy

In May 2002, Age editor Michael Gawenda refused to run Michael Leunig’s cartoon which paralleled the behaviour of modern day Israel to the behaviour of the Nazis in the Holocaust. In a bizarre twist, earlier this year someone from Chaser submitted this cartoon to a “Holocaust Denial Cartoon Competition” in an Iranian newspaper, Hamshahri. The contest was stated to be in reponse to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons mentioned below. Leunig’s cartoon was gladly accepted, but later withdrawn after it was discovered that he had not intended to submit it.

In September 2005, Danish Newspaper Jyllands-Posten ran cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. This provoked angry reactions by some Islamic countries and some Muslims living in Europe. There were riots and attacks on Danish and Norwegian embassies. There was little reaction by Australian Muslims. The idea behind the publication of these cartoons was to expose the way in which newspapers were happy to publish material offending any religious group except Muslims. The theory was that people were afraid of offending Islam because they did not want to provoke a violent reaction – and a violent reaction was what resulted. I think that Mr Kizilkaya hit the nail on the head in his comments Idomeneo the start of this post. It is horrible to make people afraid. And it is not a good way to start sensible and reasoned discussion.

AIJAC has a summary of editorial responses to both the Holocaust cartoon furore and the Mohammed cartoon furore.

Personally, I don’t think any of the images mentioned above are meritorious from an artistic perspective, nor are they particularly subtle or intelligent commentaries on the religions involved. I should admit that I am a secular woman, so perhaps to an extent I do not quite understand the passion that such images can evoke.

It seems to me that, logically, you should decide whether or not you are not going to tolerate artistic images which are potentially blasphemous towards any or all religions. Whatever policy is adopted, it should not differ from religion to religion.

From a personal perspective, I would tend towards allowing the publication of the images. I believe that as a modern secular democratic state, Australia should have free speech and freedom to comment on the way in which various religions and groups operate. However, I acknowledge that in doing so, this may result in offence to some members of particular religious communities. I welcome comments from readers who feel otherwise – after all, this post is about freedom of speech!


Filed under blasphemy, freedom of speech, Leunig, religion